The Dictionary projected by the late Richard Cleasby, and completed, remodelled, and extended by Gudbrand Vigfusson, is now printed and published by the Delegates of the Clarendon Press, and it only remains to point out briefly the advantages which philology in general and English philology in particular will derive from a work on which so much money and such persistent labour have been expended. And first let it be said that the Delegates have well appreciated the importance of the object by undertaking such a work. It is peculiarly fitting that a great Icelandic Dictionary should be printed in England, and that the vocabulary of that noble tongue should be rendered and explained in English. It is well known that the Icelandic language, which has been preserved almost incorrupt in that remarkable island, has remained for many centuries the depository of literary treasures the common property of all the Scandinavian and Teutonic races, which would otherwise have perished, as they have perished in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and England. There was a time when all these countries had a common mythology, when the royal race in each of them traced its descent in varying genealogies up to Odin and the gods of Asgard. Of that mythology, which may hold its own against any other that the world has seen, all memory, as a systematic whole, has vanished from the medieval literature of Teutonic Europe. With the introduction of Christianity the ancient gods had been deposed and their places assigned to devils and witches. Here and there a tradition, a popular tale, or a superstition bore testimony to what had been lost; and though in this century the skill and wisdom of the Grimms and their school have shewn the world what power of restoration and reconstruction abides in intelligent scholarship and laborious research, even the genius of the great master of that school of criticism would have lost nine-tenths of its power had not faithful Iceland preserved through the dark ages the two Eddas, which present to us in features which cannot be mistaken, and in words which cannot die, the very form and fashion of that wondrous edifice of mythology which our forefathers in the dawn of time imagined to themselves as the temple at once of their gods and of the worship due to them from all mankind on this middle earth. For man, according to their system of belief, could have no existence but for those good and stalwart divinities, who, from their abode in Asgard, were ever watchful to protect him and crush the common foes of both, the loathly race of giants, or, in other words, the chaotic natural powers. Any one, therefore, that desires to see what manner of men his forefathers were in their relation to the gods, how they conceived their theogony, how they imagined and constructed their cosmogony, must betake himself to the Eddas as illustrated by the Sagas, and he will there find ample details on all those points, while the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic literatures only throw out vague hints and allusions. As we read Beowulf and the Traveller’s Song, for instance, we meet at every step references to mythological stories and mythical events which would be utterly unintelligible were it not for the full light thrown upon them by the Icelandic literature.
But it is not in mythology alone that the Icelandic affords us help and sheds a flood of light on ways which would otherwise be obscure and darksome. From the Sagas we learn literally how our ancestors lived and moved and had their being. And here let us point out that there are Sagas of all kinds. There are the mythical Sagas, which deal of heroes, half gods and half men, who lived in the times when the belief in the preternatural prevailed, and when the human was eked out with the divine whenever man fell short of the occasion. These, too, next to the Eddas, are valuable helps by which to reconstruct that old mythological edifice, but they are not by any means the most interesting histories of their kind. Then there are the so-called historical Sagas, lives, for the most part, of the Kings of Denmark or of Norway, which sometimes exist in several recensions, the most famous of all being the Heimskringla, ascribed to Snorri Sturluson, who seems to have aimed at a critical arrangement of the whole series. Such Sagas as these, written at various periods by scribes more or less fitted for the task they had undertaken, are evidently of very varying authority, the most authentic of them being beyond doubt the Saga of Swerrir, King of Norway, who flourished at the end of the 12th century. In its way it is equal to Thucydides, and of it it may be said that the king was lucky in finding such an historian, and the writer in finding such a king to chronicle. These are still more valuable than the mythical Sagas, inasmuch as they are more full of the blood and stronger with the bone and sinew of daily life. With the exception of some incredible traits and occasional legends and superstitions inseparable from the age which produced them, the Sagas of the Kings of Norway give a faithful representation of the kings and earls of the time, as they ruled the Scandinavian lands and lived as lords over their subjects, who, on their side, possessed rights of which no king or noble could deprive them. These stories are filled with adventures and expeditions, such as that of Harold Hardrada against England, or of Magnus Barelegs against Scotland and Ireland, when they called out their levies and sailed with twenty or thirty thousand men at their back, to harry and plunder in the regions of the West. Not unlike these expeditions were those undertaken to the East as Crusaders by King Sigurd of Norway and Earl Rognvald of Orkney, the accounts of which are full of daring deeds on sea and land. And yet, although these Sagas are filled with the might and glory of kings and jarls, they are thickly sown with the brave deeds and outspoken utterances of sturdy freemen, and of those allodial owners of land which belonged to them in their own right, who did not scruple, if the king wronged them, to resist him, and even to defy him to the death. Such a man was Sveinki Steinarsson, who would only answer the messengers of King Magnus Barelegs in biting proverbs when they came to demand his submission, and at last made them fly home in deep disgrace.
Besides these there is still another series of Sagas. Those relating to events in the lives of Icelanders at home and abroad. These are the most interesting, because they are the most truthful of all. The Sagas of gods and heroes are mythical, altogether out of our horizon, and deal with supernatural beings which do not breathe our common air. In those elevated mythological regions respiration is impeded, and we only half live; the gods and heroes have it too much their own way, and we are amazed rather than sympathetic. In the lives of the kings, again, it requires an effort of the imagination to raise ourselves to the level of their daily life, rough and rude as it often was. We are more at our ease than when we are witnesses of the wanderings of Odin and the feats of Thor, but still we are not quite at our ease, and feel as many a stranger must have felt in the halls of Harold Hardrada and Magnus Barelegs. It is with the every-day life of the Icelanders that we feel ourselves thoroughly at home. In the hall of the gallant Gunnar at Lithend, or with the peaceful and law-skilled Njal at Bergthorshvol, we meet men who think and act as men of noble minds and gentle hearts have ever acted, and will never cease to act so long as human nature remains the same. Gisli the generous outlaw and Snorri the worldly-wise priest, Mord Valgardson the wily traitor and Hallgerda the overbearing hateful wife, are characters true for all time, whose works and ways are but eminent examples of our common humanity, and at once arouse our sympathy or our antipathy. It is this great store of Sagas relating to daily life in an age eminently poetic and attractive that forms the wealth of the medieval vernacular literature of Iceland. It may be said to begin with Landnáma, the Doomsday-Book of the colonisation of Iceland in the 14th century, and it extends down to the Sturlunga Saga in the 14th century, ending with that, perhaps the most interesting of all the Sagas, and thus bringing down the domestic history of the island to the day when it lost its independence. No other country in Europe possesses an ancient vernacular literature to be compared with this; and if to this be added the translations and adaptations from the cycle of Romance literature, and the homilies and works of religious edification, as well as those on physical and moral science, of which Iceland possesses her full share, we shall see that, whether in a literary or in a philological point of view, no literature in Europe in the Middle Ages can compete in interest with that of Iceland. It is not certainly in formâ pauperis that she appears at the bar of the tribunal of learning.
Nor should it be forgotten that the early customs and laws of Iceland are of great importance for England. While our jurists have wearied themselves in tracing at home the origin of many of the institutions now peculiar to England, and while our legal antiquaries have fathered trial by jury, the bulwark of Englishmen’s rights, on King Alfred, the source of that mode of trial, as well as of our special demurrers and other subtleties of pleading, is to be found in Iceland, where, as early as the 10th century, a form of trial almost exactly answering to that in which our juries de vicineto played a part in the 13th century, may be seen in full vigour as described in the famous trial of the Burners in Njála.
There can be little doubt that this form of trial and these legal subtleties are due in great part to a Northern influence in the Danelagh, or Scandinavianized portion of England, which at the time of the Conquest may be roughly reckoned at half the kingdom. It may be objected indeed that these institutions came in with the Normans; but unfortunately for this theory, the form of trial prevalent in Normandy was not, as in Iceland, trial by jury, but that by compurgation, or witnesses brought forward by the accused to swear that he did not do or was not capable of doing the deed laid at his door. And it is very remarkable that this trial by compurgation was also that common in Norway itself, as well as in all the Teutonic races; thus it existed in England among the Anglo-Saxons, and it came from Norway into Normandy along with the followers of Rollo, and thence it went with them into England. But in the Danelagh it found the form of trial peculiar to Iceland, and which had been developed in that island alone. This was a process not in general by compurgation, but before judges by witnesses to the fact, who made up the well-known kviðr of the Sagas. After the Conquest, in that general scramble of tongues and local institutions which took place among the native populations which the Normans had subdued, this form of trial held its own in the Danelagh, and ultimately asserted its supremacy over the compurgations both of the Saxons and the Normans, and thus we find it formally recognised as the law of the land at the end of the 13th century. ‘From the analogy of the Icelandic customs,’ says Mr. Vigfusson under the word kviðr,‘ it can be inferred with certainty that along with the invasions of the Danes and Norsemen, the judgment by verdict was also transplanted to English ground; for the settlers of England were kith and kin to those of Iceland, carrying with them the same laws and customs.’ The difference between the Scandinavian lands and England being that while the institution was never developed in Norway, and only struck faint root in the ‘Sandemand’ and ‘nämd’ of the Danish and Swedish laws, and while it languished and died out in Iceland itself with the fall of the Commonwealth towards the end of the 13th century, it grew more and more naturalised in England under the rule of the Normans, supplanting all other forms of trial between man and man, until England came to be considered the ‘classical land of trial by jury.’
From whatever point of view, therefore, we consider the relations which exist between England and Iceland, whether from that of primæval affinity and a community of race, religion, and law, or from that of connexion by commerce, immigration, or conquest, we shall find the two languages and peoples so closely bound together, that whatever throws light on the beliefs, institutions, and customs of the one, must necessarily illustrate and explain those of the other. Nor should it be forgotten that in the 10th and 11th centuries the Icelanders were foremost in the history of the time. They were at once the most learned and the boldest and most adventurous of men. From Iceland they pushed on to Greenland and America, and their ships swarmed in commerce or in viking voyages on all the seas. At the courts of kings and earls, whether Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, or Anglo-Saxon, they were welcome guests, for though none were more dreaded as foes, none were more greeted as friends for their gifts of wit and song. Thus we find Egil Skallagrimsson playing a great part, both as a warrior and a skald, at the court of the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstane, whose relations with the mighty King Harold Fair-hair, the founder of the Norwegian monarchy, was such that he fostered his son Hacon the Good, who thenceforth was known in the history of the North as Hacon Athelstane’s foster-child. But where such mighty men as Egil came we may be sure that many others of lesser mark followed, and that when Eric Bloodyaxe held the North of England as a fief from Athelstane, he had many Icelanders in his train. As time wore on, and the Danish invasions under Sweyn and Canute followed, there was a still further infusion of Northern life into the North of England, until, as we have seen before, the Danelagh, or that portion of England in which the Northmen lived, as they lived at home, under their own laws and customs, stretched itself over half the kingdom. We have already seen something of the effect which these had on the laws of England, and how trial by jury first rose in the Danelagh, and then spread over the whole land; but the presence of the Northern element in the country shewed itself in other ways besides those of law. The language of the North of England, and especially the dialect called Lowland Scotch, was full, and to this day is full, of words and expressions which can only be explained by the help of the Icelandic as the representative of the old Northern language spoken by the Scandinavian settlers in England. When the Streoneshalch of the Anglo-Saxons was called Whitby by the Danish invaders, and when Northworthige became Deoraby, our Derby, the new names were full of meaning to the Danes and meaningless to the old possessors. ‘The town on the white cliff’ was a name that spoke at once to Scandinavian sea-rovers as they neared that part of the Yorkshire coast to which they gave the name of Kliflönd or Cleveland; and in the case of Derby, ‘the town of deer,’ the town near the wooded hills full of beasts and game, spoke more forcibly to the feelings of a race that equalled the Anglo-Saxons in their love of vert and venison than the old name; derived from the position of the town towards the North. It is scarcely necessary to repeat the fact, now so well known, that this final by of names of places in England is the invariable sign of Scandinavian settlement and possession. It was a local termination unknown to the Anglo-Saxons, but so common among one of the Northern races, that the towns and places to which they gave it may be traced by hundreds on the map of England. Rugby is about the farthest south that we find it; but Tenby in South Wales shews that when the Northmen settled on the remotest parts of the sea-coast they left their mark there as well as in the very heart of the country.
Besides these names of places, very many modern English words shew early Northern influence; and even in Anglo-Saxon times the language was so blended with Scandinavian words that there were often double expressions for the same thing. One of the most common of these is egg, not originally an Anglo-Saxon, but a pure Scandinavian form, which, existing at first side by side with its old English equivalent, has at last thrown it entirely out, much in the same way as in certain counties the English rat has been eradicated by its Norwegian cousin. The story told by Caxton in his Eneydos throws light on the gradual progress of this word south. A traveller was at an inn at one of the Forelands, probably the South, in Kent, and asked for eggs, but was answered by the landlady that she knew no French; and it then came out that what he in London called eggs, she in Kent called ‘eyren,’ for in that part of England the old Anglo-Saxon word still lingered. Like traces of Scandinavian influence may be found in the form are of the verb substantive, which, in the three persons of the present plural, has expelled the old Anglo-Saxon ‘syndon’ a form akin to the German ‘seyn’ But perhaps the most remarkable instances of the displacement of old Anglo-Saxon words by their Scandinavian equivalents are law which, even in the time of Edgar, had begun to throw out the old Anglo-Saxon ‘œw’ and ‘dóm,’ and the two verbs to ‘take’ and to ‘call’ which are now in every man’s mouth, but which long sounded strange to English ears. For ages the Anglo-Saxon forms ‘clepe’ and ‘nim’ held their own, but now the first is only just understood in archaic poetry, while the last is utterly obsolete. The same maybe asserted of ‘cast,’ ‘same,’ ‘skill,’ ‘skin,’ ‘score’, and numberless others.
Enough has now been said to shew both the general and particular importance of the study of Icelandic for English philologists. Mythology, laws, customs, literature, the names of places, and even the every-day vocabulary of life cannot be thoroughly understood except by comparison with those of the North as preserved in the language and literature of Iceland. For the interest of English therefore the projection and publication of an Icelandic-English Dictionary on a large scale needs no justification, for it is simply the greatest help to English philology that has ever been undertaken and completed. When we possess an Anglo-Saxon Dictionary of the same proportions and authority we shall be better able to say what the Anglo-Saxon language really was in its earliest stage, what it afterwards became when a great infusion of Scandinavian words was thrown into it, and what it was as it degenerated into semi-Saxon after the Conquest. But while it is so important for England that she should possess this Icelandic-English Dictionary, it may easily be shewn that it is no less advantageous for the world at large that English should be the language into which the Icelandic is rendered and explained. It would, for instance, be little gain to the literary world if there had been an Icelandic-Danish or Icelandic-Norse or Icelandic-Swedish Dictionary. In any of those cases the language of a small people would have been the exponent of a language and literature which for its beauty and richness is worthy of being known to the greatest possible number of readers. From this point of view no language, not even German itself, could supply the place of English, which is already the mother-tongue of half the civilised earth, and in days to come will fill a still ampler space on the surface of the globe. In India, Australia, and, though last not least, America; wherever the English tongue is spoken and the Anglo-Saxon race has taken its stubborn root, it will be possible for scholars to avail themselves of this great treasure—a Thesaurus in every sense of the word, which, had it been explained and rendered in a Scandinavian tongue, would have remained to all but a few a sealed book.
Nor let it be for a moment supposed that any of the dialects we have named lie in reality any closer to the Icelandic than the English itself. No philologer would deny for an instant the importance of the labours of scholars in both the modern Danish and Norwegian; but those languages as vehicles of expression have suffered so much from the infusion of German words and from the adoption and assimilation of German forms and phrases, that it is often far more difficult to give the meaning of an Icelandic word or phrase in them than in English. The Swedish has remained more faithful to her old form of speech so far as the vocabulary is concerned, and her literature is the noblest of all the sister languages. Tegner and Geijer are names in poetry and history of European importance; but with all the richness of her store of words, from immemorial time Sweden has held herself aloof from the rest of the Scandinavian tongues and has remained distant, though closely cognate. Of all the kindred tongues, English, and that form of English which is called Lowland Scotch, has remained nearest in form, feeling, and often in vocabulary to the Icelandic. As for German and French, with all their richness and facility, they cannot dispute the claims of English in this particular respect; and this no doubt is owing, besides the natural and spiritual affinity existing between English and Icelandic, to the flexibility of the former tongue, which enables her to make foreign words more thoroughly her own than any other language. The Danish, the Swedish, and the German, if we may be allowed the expression, swallow many foreign words, but they seem to want the power to digest and assimilate them. They remain, so to speak, sticking in their throats for ages, while the English has long since made them part and parcel of her own flesh and blood. The courage of the Delegates of the Oxford Press in undertaking this work, and the care and time bestowed on printing it, will meet with their reward in the undoubted fact that they have not only given to the world one of the greatest helps to comparative philology that has ever appeared, but that this Dictionary is peculiarly a work to be published in England and by a great English University. Oxford now possesses a work on Northern philology which may be matched with the labours of Rask and Petersen in Denmark, with those of Munch and Keyser and Unger and Aasen in Norway, with those of Schlyter, the Nestor of Early Northern Jurisprudence, and Klemming in Sweden, and with those of Maurer, Juris Islandici peritissimus, in Germany; and in this Dictionary she holds out a sure light to every student of Northern literature.
After these general remarks we proceed to consider this particular Dictionary, and to shew that it is worthy of being the interpreter of a language so rich, and of a literature so noble. It is no less strange than true that, till very recent times, never was language worse off for helps and appliances by which it might be learnt than this very Icelandic. The works of earlier scholars, among the chief of which are the Glossary of Junius, the Thesaurus of Hickes, and Hire’s Lexicon Suio-Gothicum, were so antiquated and imperfect as rather to mislead than assist the student. As to more modern works, any one who has had to learn Icelandic by the feeble light afforded by Björn Halldorsson’s Lexicon, published in two volumes at Copenhagen in 1814, or aided by the various Glossaries annexed to Editions of the Sagas, will feel, when he consults this Oxford Dictionary, that the days before its appearance were indeed the dark ages of Icelandic philology, and be ever grateful to the Delegates of the University Press for undertaking and publishing this sure guide. The history of the book, for books have histories just as much as men, has already been partly told in the Preface. Projected by Richard Cleasby, whose name should never be mentioned by Icelandic scholars without pious respect, it was supposed to be about to be published, when death cut short his days and arrested the progress of the work, which scholars like Grimm and Schmeller anxiously expected. No one perhaps, both by his knowledge of the Teutonic dialects and by his indefatigable love of his subject, was better fitted than Richard Cleasby to carry out his great plan of printing a Dictionary of the Icelandic language, as exhibited by quotations drawn from the prose literature of Iceland in that golden age which ended with the 14th century. At the same time Dr. Egilsson was busy with his Dictionary of the Poetic Diction of Iceland, so that between these two works no want or desire of the philologist would have been left unsupplied. Dr. Egilsson’s work has been published for many years, but the Dictionary which Cleasby projected has only just seen the light. It is due in this place to declare that the heirs of the deceased, when the hand and head which should have superintended the completion of his work were cold in death, were equal to the emergency. They determined that the work should not be abandoned, and advanced a large sum of money for its completion. It has already been mentioned in the Preface that when the MS. was transmitted to England it was found to be in such an unsatisfactory condition that in the end it had to be entirely rewritten and remodelled. This most responsible duty was ultimately undertaken in the year 1866 by Mr. Gudbrand Vigfusson, then one of the first, as he is now undoubtedly the first, of Icelandic philologers.
Many years after the transmission of the MS., and when the first part of the Dictionary had been published and the second and third were far advanced towards completion, Mr. Cleasby’s own materials were returned from Copenhagen and handed over to the writer. Acting on his own discretion, he determined that it would be most unfair to Mr. Vigfusson to interrupt him by new matter, which might have been of great assistance at an earlier period, but which could only have been an encumbrance to him when his labours were drawing to an end. Two boxes, which contained what may be called Mr. Cleasby’s literary remains, were left unopened till the Dictionary was completed and the last sheet had gone to press. On the 25th of August last they were opened by Dr. Dasent and Mr. Vigfusson, and were found to contain three volumes in folio; in one of which were entered, in Mr. Cleasby’s own hand, the principal verbs of the language, 112 in number, and filling 500 written pages1. In a second volume, 84 nouns, particles, and pronouns are contained, filling 230 written pages2. In the third volume were entered the prepositions to the number of 44, filling 160 written pages3; added to which it appears, from pencil marks and notes, that it was the intention of the writer to enter into the volume several important verbs and substantives not to be found in the first volume. These three volumes are estimated by Mr. Vigfusson to contain about 15,000 quotations, written out at length and posted most methodically and neatly, like entries in a ledger, the references being double to book and chapter, and page and line. These volumes are written in a bold running hand, and the correctness of the spelling and accentuation of Icelandic words shews the writer’s thorough mastery over the language. Besides the beautiful writing in ink, there are frequent pencil marks and marginal notes in a fine English hand. These notes often contain valuable remarks, though all in a rough state, and affording rather hints and suggestions as to the plan of the Glossary. Besides, there are frequent renderings of Icelandic words into Latin as well as English. It has been a pious duty to print specimens of these remarks on pp. cv-cviii, where will be found Cleasby’s entries under the word mál, to which has been added, for purposes of comparison, the same word as it appeared in the Copenhagen transcripts based on these very materials of the lamented philologer4.
The remainder of the Cleasby collections in the boxes consisted of slips, on each of which was entered a single Icelandic word, followed by quotations and references, for the most part in a very elementary state. About half the writing on these slips is that of Cleasby, who seems to have extended and completed the work first begun in rough by his amanuenses. In one respect these slips, rude and incomplete as they are, contrast very favourably with the Copenhagen transcripts. The quotations in them are written out in full, and the references are to chapter, page, and line. In another particular, the care taken by Cleasby in quotation and reference was remarkable, in cases where several Sagas are contained in one volume; such, for instance, as the Íslendinga Sögur (of 1830), he is not content to quote the collective volume, but invariably specifies the particular Saga from which the quotation is made. If this excellent rule had been observed in the Copenhagen transcripts, immense labour would have been spared to Mr. Vigfusson, who has returned to Cleasby’s method, though in ignorance that he was pursuing the plan of the originator of the Dictionary. The references and quotations in these slips may be roughly estimated at 50,000. They contain the rest of the Icelandic vocables, the 240 words already mentioned as entered in the three volumes being omitted.
Even from a glance at these, his own materials, Cleasby stands out as a clearsighted ready worker. Some time before his death he had printed a specimen of his Glossary, a portion of which will be found appended to the Memoir which follows this Introduction. So far as we can judge from these materials, it is plain that he intended to complete the work on the same scale; and it is very satisfactory to see that in one or two cases of doubtful etymology his views as now revealed are identical with those of the philologer to whom the laborious task of restoring order to his collections has devolved5. Such is the nature of the literary remains of Cleasby now restored to his native land, together with many valuable works from his library, nearly twenty years after his Dictionary was said to have been completed. Better far would it have been had they been restored on his death. As it was, a hard fate neither permitted him to complete worthily the great work which he had sketched out in these volumes, nor suffered the threads which had fallen from his hands to be taken up by those who were competent to unravel them till many years after his decease.
From the thankless task of contemplating the short-comings of others, it is grateful to turn to the part which Mr. Vigfusson has had in this undertaking. With the most praiseworthy determination, neither turning to the right nor to the left, he has pursued his course and fulfilled his task unflinchingly for seven years, during which he has resided in Oxford. Those only who, like the writer, were acquainted with the Cleasby transcripts as they came from Copenhagen, can tell how far more meritorious and scientific the printed Dictionary is than those undigested collections. Mr. Vigfusson might have been contented with restoring order and in imparting life and spirit into the rude mass which had been handed over to him; but in reality he did much more. He has embodied into the work the materials to be found in the Poetic Dictionary of Dr. Egilsson, and he has also largely availed himself of the quotations and references in the excellent Icelandic-Norse Dictionary of Fritzner, as well as the greater part of the Glossary of Möbius. Added to which he has sought words and phrases and proverbs from very many glossaries too numerous to mention. The result has been that as the Oxford Dictionary now appears, about one-third of the references has been derived from the Cleasby transcripts, which were originally meant to illustrate, as we have already said, the golden age of prose Icelandic literature. Thus it is that we find copious quotations in them from such classical works as Njála, Grágás, and the Laxdæla and Egils Sagas. Besides these, the following list will pretty nearly exhaust the works quoted in the Cleasby collections, and from these the quotations were less copious:—the Heiðarvíga Saga, Hrafnkels Saga, Vápnfirðinga Saga, Ljósvetninga Saga, Víga Glúms Saga, Gísla Saga, Fóstbræðra Saga, Bjarnar Saga Hitdæla-kappa, Gunnlaugs Saga, Bandamanna Saga, Grettis Saga, the Sturlunga, Árna Biskups Saga, and the Sagas of some other Bishops extending to about one-third of the first volume of the Biskupa Sögur. So far as the Laws are concerned, besides the Grágás, quotations are made from the first and part of the second volume of Norges Gamle Love and the two Kristinréttir. Besides the domestic Sagas of Iceland mentioned above, quotations and references were made from and to the Fornmanna Sögur, the Fornaldar Sögur, and from the Skuggsjá, the Snorra Edda, and the Sæmunds Edda and Skálda, so far as the prose diction was concerned. In addition to these, copious use was made of some moral and biblical treatises and paraphrases, such as Stjórn and the Homilies, now printed, but then quoted from the MSS. 226, 619, and 677 in the Arna-Magnaean collection, as well as the Sagas and legends contained in the MSS. Nos. 623, 645, 655, and 656 in that collection6. In what may be called the translations and adaptations from the Romance cycle, references and quotations were made from the Alexanders Saga and the Strengleikar, as well as from the Flovents Saga, the Elis Saga, the Bærings Saga, under the common head of Arn. M. 580, a MS. which has not as yet been printed. These, with a few Deeds out of Finn Jónsson’s Historia Ecclesiastica, vol. i. and ii. reaching down to the year 1400, and some of the Máldagar or Agreements of various monasteries in Iceland, complete the list of works made use of in Cleasby’s own materials and in the transcripts made from them at Copenhagen after his death.
That they were quotations from a great body of works belonging to the best age of Icelandic literature cannot be contested, but it is also undeniable that a mass of works of the greatest importance to the philology of the language were entirely omitted. It must ever be remembered that a Dictionary has to deal with words, and not with literature, except as affording a matrix, so to speak, from which words may be extracted. A very ignoble author may thus afford a very precious word; and a Dictionary, in the true sense of the word, must open her doors to all her children of whatever age, whether of high or low degree, alike. Based on this principle, we find that this Dictionary, besides embodying the whole vocabulary of the poetic language, includes not only very many words contained in the modern, language of Iceland, but also numberless quotations from Sagas and writings altogether ignored in the Cleasby transcripts. Not to speak of particular MSS., such as the Codex Regius, the Flateyjarbók, and Morkinskinna, we shall find a whole host of works quoted, to which reference is never made in Cleasby’s collections. Such are the Barlaams Saga, the Legendary Olafs Saga, the Fagrskinna, the Tristrams Saga, the Rómverja Saga, the Parcevals Saga, the Ívents Saga, the Thomas Saga Erkibiskups, the Játvardar Saga, the Karlamagnús Saga, the Þiðreks Saga, the Saga of Þorstein the son of Sidu-Hall, and several others. Besides these, the end of the second volume and the whole of the third volume of Norges Gamle Love, the Diplomatarium Norvagicum, the remaining Sagas of the Bishops, and the Runic Inscriptions have been left unnoticed in the Cleasby transcripts. If we add to this that the quotations from such standard works as Landnáma, Eyrbyggja, Vatnsdæla, the Flóamanna Saga, the Rafns Saga, the Laurentius Saga, the Arons Saga, the Kristni Saga, the Íslendingabók, the Orkneyinga Saga, the Maríu Saga, and many others were very scanty and imperfect,—and if we consider that no extracts were made from the ancient poetical literature, not even from the rhymed names of trees, fishes, birds, and nautical words, etc., in the Edda (Edda Gl.); that there were no quotations from any prose work after a.d. 1400 or 1350; nor from any work of the time of the Reformation downwards; and that no regard was had to the modern living language, which in every nation remains a true Lexicographical Cornucopia,—we must confess that a large field of unexplored country remained to cover.
But besides this extended field of reference and quotation, Mr. Vigfusson has done much more than improve and arrange the Cleasby transcripts. So far as can be ascertained from the printed specimen, it was Cleasby’s intention to pay particular attention to the etymology of the Icelandic language, and this intention has been followed in the new Dictionary, though there was scarcely a trace of etymology in the transcripts. At the head of the account of each word its etymology and affiliation with other tongues are given, and this information will be found to be both ample and reliable. There may be, as there must always be, differences of opinion as to the etymology of certain words—for the region of etymology contains some of the darkest paths to be found in the realm of philology. But in every case the etymologies here given are scientific and reasonable, which cannot be said of most Dictionaries. In a word, they are free from that wildness and extravagance which have so often brought this branch of philology into disrepute, and on the whole are stamped with a modesty and forbearance which speak loudly for the good sense and discretion of their author. Under another point of view this Dictionary presents a feature never seen, or at least far less prominently seen in other Dictionaries. This feature may be called the literary life of important Icelandic words. It contains an exhaustive collection of Icelandic proverbs, which are, as it were, the marrow of the language; and whenever a word occurs which has played a great part in the laws or literature or history of the Northern races, the fullest account of it is given. If the reader will refer to such natural words as ‘Nótt,’ ‘Sól,’ and ‘Sumar,’ such law terms as ‘Lyritr,’ ‘Mál,’ ‘Mót,’ and ‘Þing,’ such mythological compounds as ‘Múspell’ and ‘Ragna-rök,’ such religious and social words as ‘Baugr,’ ‘Bauta-steinn,’ ‘Goði,’ and ‘Lögmaðr,’ and to words of reckoning, such as ‘Fimmt,’ ‘Tigr,’ ‘Hundrað,’ and ‘Þúsund,’ he will find not only an exact etymological account of each, but a whole history of the word in the various relations which it bore to the development of religious, social, and political feeling in the Icelandic Commonwealth. These instances have been taken almost at random, but what is true of them is true also of hundreds of words in this Dictionary, which in this characteristic is matchless of its kind.
And now nearly all has been said that could be said of the origin, progress, and completion of this Icelandic Dictionary. The writer, who has watched over it, so to speak, from its birth, and who has been, as it were, a second father to it ever since the untimely death of its natural parent, cannot but feel a glow of exultation as he beholds it issuing from the press in all the maturity and fulness which it at one time seemed hopeless that it could ever assume. In it the English student now possesses a key to that rich store of knowledge which the early literature of Iceland possesses. He may read the Eddas and the Sagas, which contain sources of delight and treasures of learning such as no other language but that of Iceland can furnish. But when he wanders through these fresh pastures, and his heart warms as he reads the mighty deeds of the gods and heroes, of the kings and earls and simple yeomen of the North, let him not forget to honour those to whom honour is due. The time and trouble bestowed upon this work would have been of little avail had it not found a hearty welcome from the Delegates of the Oxford Press. To those Delegates past and present, to the Bishop of Chester and Dean of Christ Church in particular, the thanks of all lovers of Northern learning are due for having so generously fostered this Icelandic Dictionary, and made it a child of this famous University.
To no one has the Dictionary been more indebted than to the Dean of Christ Church, so far as advice with respect to the English is concerned; but this acknowledgment really represents very feebly the services rendered by Dr. Liddell to the work. From the very first, not only did its general superintendence devolve on him, but for the whole time during which it was passing through the press, his assistance was invaluable, in correcting the English, in adding to the philological character of the work, and in suggesting alterations and improvements. In the autumn of 1870, indeed when the serious responsibilities of the Vice-Chancellorship were added to his other duties, Dr. Liddell was unable to bestow so much time on this labour; it then fell to Mr. Kitchin, who had also revised the sheets from the beginning, to supply his place, but to the very last every sheet as it was printed was first submitted to the Dean, then passed on with his suggestions to Mr. Kitchin, and finally settled by him with Mr. Vigfusson. For such constant and laborious care the thanks of all Icelandic scholars are due to Dr. Liddell and Mr. Kitchin, as without their supervision and advice the English portion of the work could not have attained its present excellence. In another point too the experience of the Dean of Christ Church was specially valuable; this was in the arrangement and simplification of what may be called the mechanical part of the Dictionary. The eye and hand so practised by the toil of preparing successive editions of Liddell and Scott’s Greek Dictionary stood this Icelandic follower in good stead; and it may be affirmed without fear of contradiction that in no city or university in the world has the art and science of printing and publishing a Dictionary with the utmost economy of space, and at the same time with such distinct and beautiful typography, been carried to a greater pitch of perfection than at the University Press in Oxford.
To another well-known name in Oxford Mr. Vigfusson has been indebted for much valuable information and assistance. The Icelandic language is full of seafaring terms, as befits the speech of those hardy seamen who swarmed in early times on every sea in Europe. Throughout the whole literature it may be said that there is a wholesome smack of the salt sea, and mast and sail and rope and pump fill many a page in the Sagas of the North. When these sea terms had to be rendered into English there was but one in Oxford to whom Mr. Vigfusson could betake himself. This was Dr. Henry Acland, whose knowledge of the seafaring terms of England is as exact as his medical skill. To him, to Mr. Kitchin, to Mr. Coxe, and to many others in Oxford, Mr. Vigfusson desires through the writer to express his thanks for the help rendered on these and many other points, as well as for the uniform kindness with which they welcomed the stranger to Oxford, and relieved to the utmost of their power the monotony inevitably attending the execution of such work as that in which he was engaged. It will be a recompense to him for the labour which he has bestowed on this Dictionary, if it should be the means of attracting the attention of students in England to the literature of Iceland. Nor, though the wealth of the language lies in the early Sagas, is it to be supposed that the Icelandic of later days is not worthy of being known. In no portion of the world, in proportion to its population, has there been such continuous literary life as in that distant isle. Still more would he feel himself rewarded if his labours should be the means of restoring her Old Bible to Iceland. It would be for the good of all, and even for the beginner in Icelandic if he could find a sure stay to his first footsteps in the grand old Icelandic translation of the Bible by Bishop Gudbrand of the year 1584, which may compare with our own Authorised Version for purity and strength; but this version has, most unhappily for Iceland, been replaced in recent years by a paraphrastic translation, which it should be the aim of all true friends of piety and learning to discourage and disclaim. Were that pure and faithful version restored to its rightful position, the first footsteps of the student would be far more sure, and, strengthened by that literal translation, he might proceed to the Sagas and the Eddas, when he will certainly not regret the time and trouble spent in learning the language, especially when the time has been shortened and the labour lightened by the help of this Dictionary.
Nor, finally, should it be forgotten that even without its aid many Englishmen have become students of Icelandic. The late Sir Edmund Head, too early lost to these and other studies, Mr. Garnett of the British Museum, and Principal Barclay of Glasgow, were all of them in their day sound scholars in the language; Dr. Carlyle, in Edinburgh, is also well acquainted with Icelandic; and here in Oxford it will be enough to mention one living instance in the Right Hon. Robert Lowe, who, instead of burning his books, like too many of his contemporaries, when he turned his mind to politics, found time to enter into new fields of learning, and to possess them. To few Englishmen has it been granted to attain to such mastery both over the language of Iceland and the spirit of her people and literature. Nor can this Introduction be more fitly closed than by quoting an epigram by that skilful hand, and repeating in this University the greeting with which he addresses that island so smitten with snow-storms, so veiled in mist, so seamed with volcanic fire, so shaken by earthquakes as never Delos was shaken; and yet, in spite of all this, so mighty in the indomitable spirit of her sons, so subtle and far-sighted in her laws, and so free and independent for centuries against the tyranny of Norwegian kings:—
Χαῖρε καὶ ἐν νεφέλῃσι καὶ ἐν νιφάδεσσι βαρείαις
καὶ πυρὶ καὶ σεισμοῖς νῆσε σαλευομένη.
ἐνθάδε γὰρ βασιλῆος ὑπέρβιον ὓβριν ἀλύξας
δῆμος Ὑπερβορέων, πόντου ἐπ’ ἐσχατιῇ,
αὐτάρκη βίοτον θείων τ’ ἐρεθίσατα Μουσῶν
καὶ θεσμοὺς ἁγνῆς εὗρεν ἐλευθερίη.
GEORGE WEBBE DASENT.
October 15, 1873.